Gaby's Deli customers spice up fight against closure

For nearly half-a-century, Gaby's Deli has served salt-beef sandwiches to theatre- and cinema-goers in London's West End. Many a visitor enjoyed their first taste of hummus and falafel there.

But now, Israeli owner Gaby Elyahu has been told he must quit next year because the landlords want to develop the site in Charing Cross Road, just off Leicester Square, for a restaurant chain.

However, loyal customers are not giving up with a fight. Actors Henry Goodman and Miriam Margolyes are among more than 2,000 signatories of an online petition protesting against the prospective closure.

The campaign is also supported by MP Denis MacShane, who has written to the Marquess of Salisbury, a director of landlords Gascoyne Holdings, expressing "alarm" at the threat to an "iconic" establishment which offers the "best salt beef this side of the Atlantic".

Amid "over-pricey, same-same eating places in the centre of London, Gaby's is a true original," he wrote. "It is a special London institution and it would be a shame to see it go."

It is a special London institution

Sara Nathan, former editor of Channel 4 news and current board member of the Solicitors' Regulation Authority, was so incensed that she has launched a Facebook campaign to save the restaurant she has been a regular customer of for 20 years.

"It is a unique part of London and it shouldn't be got rid of to bring in something anonymous and bland," she said.

Mr Elyahu first began carving his salt beef sandwiches back in 1964, adding more Middle Eastern dishes some years later - "I bought a shwarma machine over from Israel". Pitta was once such an unfamiliar word that he recalls people asking if they could have their falafel "in an envelope".

Tastes have changed since then. "The English girls eat chilli, which they never did before," he observed. "But the young don't seem to know what salt beef is."

For travelling Israelis, Gaby's was often a first port of call. "They would come with their suitcases asking did I know where they could sleep or could I give them a job?"

Israeli politicians such as Ephraim Sneh and Yitzhak Mordechai would come along when they were staying in London. Future restaurateurs learned to pickle and spice at Gaby's.

And it was not only Israelis who came looking for a job. "I had a girl from Egypt who wanted to work here," Mr Elyahu said. "It was before the Six-Day War. I said we are Israeli but she said she didn't mind. One day, she said she wanted to bring her father here.

"I saw a Rolls Royce outside, along with police on motorbikes. Her father came in and sat down. She said that he wanted to meet me. 'I want to thank you for looking after my daughter,' he said. I asked her who he was and she showed me a picture of her father with [President] Nasser.

"There were also some Egyptians who worked here who went back for the 1973 war. They used to send me postcards from Sinai."

    Last updated: 11:29am, October 19 2011